1979: When Werner Herzog Ate His Shoe

Werner Herzog

In 1979, a 35-year-old Alice Waters was asked for her help in fulfilling an unusual promise.

This article first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Berlin Daily issue on Feb. 5. 

In 1979, a 35-year-old Alice Waters — the renowned chef and this year’s Berlinale Camera award recipient — was asked for her help in fulfilling an unusual promise. Some years earlier, German filmmaker Werner Herzog had pledged to “eat my shoe” if Errol Morris — a 29-year-old protege he’d met on the UC Berkeley campus — finished his first film, a documentary about the pet cemetery business called Gates of Heaven. (Morris had been dragging his feet on the project, and the prolific Herzog had begun to lose patience.) Newly incentivized, Morris completed the feature, whereupon Herzog was determined to make good on the deal.

It was another filmmaker, the late Les Blank, who asked Waters — whose restaurant Chez Panisse was a favorite hangout among the Berkeley film scene — if she might prepare the dish on camera for his short film, 1980’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Recalls Waters, 70, of the amusing challenge, “It was difficult to refuse.”

Waters braised Herzog’s boots in a pot of rendered duck fat with “thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper, bay leaves, the whole nine yards.” Despite a full day of cooking, the leather never softened. But that hardly deterred Herzog, who, with the help of a pair of poultry shears, successfully consumed part of one boot before Gates of Heaven’s April 1979 Berkeley premiere. Herzog told the appreciative crowd at The UC Theatre that he was dedicating the inedible repast to those who aspire “to make films and are scared to start.”

For Morris, now 66, it was a recipe for success: Gates of Heaven later would be declared one of the “10 best films of all time” by Roger Ebert and mark the start of an illustrious career that culminated in a 2004 Oscar win for The Fog of War.